“When there is a fake—hippopotamus, dinosaur, sea serpent—it is not so much because it would not be possible to have the real equivalent, but because the public is meant to admire the perfection of the fake and its obedience to the program. In this sense Disneyland not only produces illusions, but—in confessing it—stimulates a desire for it: A real crocodile can be found in a zoo, and as a rule it is dozing or hiding, but Disneyland tells us that faked nature corresponds much more to our daydream demands. When, in the space of twenty-four hours, you go (as I deliberately did) from the fake New Orleans of Disneyland to the real one, and from the wild river of Adventure Land to a trip on the Mississippi, where the captain of the paddle-wheel steamer says it is possible to see alligators on the banks of the river, and then you don’t see any, you risk feeling homesick for Disneyland, where the wild animals do not have to be coaxed. Disneyland tells us that technology can give us more reality than nature can.”
Umberto Eco. 1986. “Travels in Hyper-Reality.” In Travels in Hyper-Reality: Essays. Harcourt. p. 40.
“The speed, balance, the violence. Kendo was everything that the Jedi and Sith are.”
Nick Gillard. 2015. The Evolution of the Lightsaber Duel. ESPN. Min: 18:20.
This post begins with a confession. The question mark in the title is more honest than I am comfortable admitting. On the surface it does not seem at all certain that the Star Wars films should be thought of as martial arts stories. They are clearly a mash-up, a visual collage, showing many influences. Their eclectic nature allowed George Lucas’ actual genius as an editor and compiler (the areas where I feel he truly excels) to shine through.
One does not have to look too hard to find the influences of the pulp science fiction serials of the 1940s and 1950s in the DNA of these films. Flash Gordon is present, as are the ray guns and laser swords of that era. These films are also westerns, conveying more than a hint of the “cowboy ethos.” More than anything else, they seem to be romantic adventures, deeply indebted to the swashbucklers of an earlier age. That is a fine template of a quintessentially American “coming of age” story.
Yet I have never been able to shake the feeling that the Star Wars franchise played a critical role in aiding and abetting the cultural appropriation of the Asian martial arts in the West. When Lucas released Episode IV: New Hope in 1977 (and even more, The Empire Strikes Back in 1980) he sowed the fields a subsequent generation of strip-mall Sensei would reap.
Historically speaking, the popularity of the Asian martial arts had been growing since the 1950s. Bruce Lee’s release of Enter the Dragon in 1973 catapulted these fighting systems into the mainstream of popular consciousness. Yet this newfound popularity came with hints of notoriety.
Not everyone in the America of the 1970s was equally enthusiastic to see legions of young people imitating Bruce Lee on playgrounds. And to the extent that his message of liberation was taken up in the African-American and Latino communities, the spread of the Chinese martial arts played directly into the social cleavages and racial fears of the decade. [Nor should we ignore the important work of the African-American martial artists who predated Lee.]
Luke Skywalker’s appearance a few years later both benefited from, and served to accelerate, the social normalization of the martial arts in America. As the spread of the Asian fighting systems became more popular and commercial, the entire project started to seem less threatening. It began to resemble something that could be integrated into the economic and social structures of the day, rather than being a threat to them.
Yet there was still the question of why? Outside of the sheer coolness of the exercise, why would someone dedicate themselves to training in the arcane arts of hand combat in an era whose anxieties were dominated by the Cold War and the prospect of a nuclear holocaust? Given that most potential martial artists were rather young, why should worried parents in expensive neighborhoods be willing to bankroll any of these activities? I suspect this is where Star Wars really enters the story of the Western martial arts community.
An elegant weapon for a more civilized age.
One of the immediate objections that I have received when raising the possibility of thinking of the Star Wars franchise as martial arts films (or at least putting them in dialogue with the genera) is that they contain no actual hand combat. Where is the kung fu, the boxing, the grappling? Indeed, the climatic final battle of the first film happens as the protagonists match their piloting skills against the Empire’s best and brightest.
While a reasonable critique, I suspect that this takes too narrow a view of what a martial arts film can be. Given my research background I have acquired a great respect for southern Kung Fu films, especially the older ones with their tales of local lineage feuds and rival schools. Yet there have always been other strains of martial arts story telling. In Japan Samurai films tended to focus almost exclusively on armed combat and various forms of dueling. We know that Kurosawa’s films, such as the “Seven Samurai” and “The Hidden Fortress,” had a formative effect on Lucas’ development as a film maker.
The Chinese populace also showed considerable variability in their cinematic tastes. During the 1960s the Shaw Brothers produced a large number of Wuxia (or Swordsman) films that tended to be both more romantic in nature and to place a greater emphasis on weapons (which were always present in earlier eras) rather than boxing. The One Armed Swordsman (1967) is a classic example of such a piece.
Thus the lack of fisticuffs alone cannot disqualify the Star Wars films as representative of the martial arts genera. Perhaps the most important thing to note is that the way that combat is portrayed in each of these films represents cultural traditions and values. When we see dramatic shifts in the sorts of representations of violence that are popular, it often pays to ask whether social values are changing. In the case of Hong Kong, the influx of massive numbers of non-Cantonese speaking refugees in the 1950s and 1960s does seem to have had a substantial impact on the sorts of martial arts stories that were told and how combat was imagined within them.
In a period of rapid change within American society (growing globalization, the Vietnam War, evolving gender and race relations) a return to the sword, and to the traditional values of “a more civilized age” that it represented, may have been deeply comforting to white middle class audiences. This is not to say that the story-line of Star Wars is universally reactionary in nature. Being fundamentally a visual collage it actually strikes me as rather hard to characterize.
Lucas was far from the first storyteller to draw upon the “romance of the blade.” By his own admission he had grown-up watching pirate films and Errol Flynn features which promoted this same myth. As a symbol of Western knighthood, and often incorporated into Christian religious iconography, the symbolic background of the sword is far beyond anything that could be explored in this essay.
Yet if the youth of America were about to embrace the martial arts as a tool for stepping onto the stage of adulthood, one suspects that the image of a lightsaber was more in keeping with Western society’s hegemonic values that the battered and bloodied boxers popularized by Bruce Lee. In short, while Lee may have massively popularized the martial arts among minority and economically disadvantaged communities, Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda made them acceptable for the kids in the suburbs (or at least their parents).
As Bowman observed in a recent paper, the Asian martial arts, while widely known in the West, have never been accepted as representing core social values. Their spread has caused a certain amount of anxiety which often manifests as a nervous humor. More often than not martial artists have been laughed at rather than with.
The focus on the lightsaber seen in the Star Wars franchise does something very interesting. While strongly suggesting Samurai and Wuxia traditions, these images were presented in such a way that they moved the discussion of certain aspects of the martial arts out of counter-hegemonic discourses and into the mainstream of Western popular culture. Perhaps this is the reason why it is difficult to see the basic parallels with Asian martial arts films. It all seems too familiar.
Yet there is much more to the Jedi and Sith than just the knightly traditions of the West. The discussion of the Force, and the many force abilities displayed in the films, strongly suggested the more mystical aspect of the Asian martial arts. All of this was happening at a time when there was unprecedented interest in Daoism, Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies.
Star Wars helped to normalize and familiarize an entire generation of film goers with these basic concepts. It did not teach the details of any particular system, so much as it created a social space in which ideas about Qi, or the practice of Qigong, could be personally and then commercially explored. By packaging these concepts in a way that was entirely acceptable to Western consumers, it created more of a demand for them than would otherwise have existed.
It also provided a lens through which various Asian martial arts traditions could be viewed and initially explained. How many times have we have heard Star Wars metaphors invoked within traditional martial arts classrooms? Krug has identified this growing acceptance of Eastern metaphysical systems (including the idea of Qi) as one of the core elements that ultimately allowed for the cultural appropriation of the Asian fighting arts in the West.
It is hard to imagine that George Lucas, if asked in the year 1972, would have admitted to making a martial arts film. While he is happy to explain the various sources of inspiration that he drew on (including the Samurai films of Kurosawa), he seems to have always perceived his work as falling more in the category of romantic adventure.
This brings up the sticky question of authorial intent. To what degree should the author’s view of his own work constrain our interpretation of it? I would respectfully suggest that when engaging in social history a much more important set of questions might be, how did audiences see these films? And why did they react to them in quite the ways that they did?
Hyunseon Lee recently presented a paper titled “Martial Arts Film as Global Cinema” which may help to bring some of these questions into sharper focus. Her research, presented at the 2016 “Kung Fury: Contemporary Debates in Martial Arts Cinema” conference, dealt extensively with the relationship between Chinese opera and martial arts films. It also noted the ways in which both have transmitted similar cultural values.
Given the importance of Cantonese opera traditions to the development of multiple southern kung fu styles, such discussions have always interested me. However, she also presented another observation more relevant to the question at hand. In her research she has identified a list of five core story elements that are central to traditional Chinese martial arts films, and not usually seen (at least as a complete set) in other types of action films. They are:
- Conflicts between rival martial arts styles/clans
- Climactic duels
- A strong emphasis on the relationship between master and student
- A discussion of how self-mastery leads to victory over one’s external opponents, which can be seen as an extension of the Confucian “Doctrine of the Mean.”
- A romance of the hero, either engaged with or turned away from
It is not hard to find each of these elements in every one of the Star Wars films, prequels and now sequels. The Empire Strikes Back comes the closest to fully embodying all of these points to the exclusion of practically all else. Yet they define the development of each of the stories in some way or another.
The Star Wars myth is structured by the Manichean struggle of the Dark and Light sides of the Force as manifest by the competing martial and mystical traditions embedded in the Jedi and Sith. The fratricidal competition between these two groups of warriors drives much of the action in the Star Wars mythos.
Every film features a climatic, mystical, duel. In the original offering this takes the form of a battle between pilots who seek to employ the Force to guide their actions. Yet in each of the subsequent films lightsabers are employed as the major tool by which the plot is advanced.
Luke’s relationships with Obi-Wan and Yoda practically defines the first two films in the franchise and has generated a huge amount of fan enthusiasm. Much of the teaching bequeathed by these masters focuses explicitly on the importance of self-mastery above all else. Indeed, Anakin Skywalker falls to the Dark Side precisely because he cannot embrace this principal.
Lastly, princesses (or queens) in distress are featured prominently in both the original films and the prequels. It is however notable the degree to which The Force Awakens, the most recent offering in the series, has attempted to problematize this aspect of the archetypal story-arch.
In short, it should be no surprise that the Star Wars films have managed to capture the feel and texture of martial arts cinema. While clearly translated into a different cultural context, the plots and story-lines employed parallel the conventions of a typical martial arts film to an almost uncanny degree. It is thus no coincidence that so many viewers have watched the films, and then wondered what it would be like to embark on Jedi or Sith training. Recently large numbers of people have gone so far as to invest substantial resources into the construction of hyper-real martial arts movements seeking to answer this very question.
Conclusion: Kendo Conquers Star Wars…Sort of.
I suspect that the initial affinity between Star Wars and the larger world of martial arts cinema was basically a coincidence. Or more properly, we might say that it was an artifact of the diverse images and types of storytelling that Lucas was drawing from. Vader’s mask is reminiscent of the ancient Samurai, but his helmet was also distinctly Teutonic in outline.
As the series expanded and evolved there appears to have been more of an effort to “Orientalize” its feel. Yoda is an almost perfect embodiment of the Western ideal of the mystical Chinese sage, or as Adam Frank would say, the eternally vital and wise “little old Chinese man.” By the time we get to Qui-Gon Jinn it is hard to believe that we are dealing with anything except an oddly Caucasian version of a wandering Asian swordsman. While we can never quite place its origin, audiences would find it hard to imagine that his name could be anything except Asian in origin.
The prequels feature what must be considered one of the most gripping retellings of the “Burning of the Shaolin Temple” ever seen on screen. In many ways Lucas’ adaptation of the famous incident is superior (at least for Western audiences) to the original published versions of the story in 19th century Chinese Wuxia novels.
In those novels the Shaolin monks are haughty and aggressive. They are prone to bickering and feuding, often violently, among themselves. This reflected the fiery temper and fierce independence that Guangdong’s residents (and publishers) valued in their own culture. It also makes them difficult heroes to sympathize with. When their Emperor managed to assert control over the situation and burn the renowned temple to the ground, most readers are forced to admit that Empire (evil or otherwise) has restored order to the land.
Much as Eco suggests in the opening quote, Star Wars draws off of these traditions and suggests that they can be improved upon. We can have heroes who are “more” culturally accessible, princesses that are “more” relatable, and villains that “more” dastardly. As the Star Wars franchise evolved it deftly identified much of what viewers found interesting in the martial arts films, and then if offered them “more.” This was the same “more” that Eco identified as being at the root of American consumer culture; more immediacy, more accessibility, more excitement and meaning in life.
By bringing all of this back into the sphere of hegemonic western social values, and aggressively marketing his vision to a public eager for relics of that far away galaxy, Lucas promised that his stories could be “more” than the originals that they were based on. Eco would surely have been impressed with his efforts. He might even have declared Star Wars to be a hyper-real martial arts film. Nor would he have been at all surprised by the immense amounts of money that Disney would be willing to spend to acquire this franchise. In this regard the two entertainment empires have always been uncannily similar.
It is interesting to consider Nick Gillard’s introductory quote in light of Eco’s observations about the nature of hyper-reality. Gillard was a fight choreographer who worked on the Star Wars prequels and he recently discussed his body of work on a short documentary, aired on ESPN in late 2015, titled “Star Wars: The Evolution of the Lightsaber Duel.”
This feature was part of the publicity effort that preceded the recent release of the Episode VII: The Force Awakens. In many ways this was an obvious advertising ploy. Not only is the lightsaber one of the most iconic and popular images to emerge from the original franchise, but Luke’s once and future weapon would play a critical role in the plot of the upcoming film.
Still, the ESPN program did not focus exclusively on lightsabers. Instead the documentary began with an extended discussion of traditional Japanese fencing in the form of Kendo. Kendo masters were interviewed in Japanese. Black and white historical footage was shown. Scenes from classic Samurai films were cut into the action.
Nor was this interest in Kendo limited to the introduction. Again and again the documentary came back to footage of Kendo experts. Actors appeared on screen and testified that they had been diligently trained in the art of kendo in preparation for their roles. Fight choreographers testified that what audiences were watching in various iconic duels (such as Count Duku’s showdown with Yoda) was in fact kendo. The documentary even came to a close with footage of the American Kendo team being defeated by the South Koreans in the 16th World Kendo Championship.
By the end of the documentary it was clear that audiences were expected to have absorbed a single message. The fantasy of lightsaber combat was based on a real martial art. It had been practiced and drilled and actually performed for them on film. And that art was kendo, the swordsmanship of the Samurai.
This is a fascinating development in the way that the creators of Star Wars stories (now owned by Disney) have decided to talk about their efforts. An Asian martial art has seemingly been fully embraced and acknowledged as the root of Star War’s visual power.
Yet is also leaves us with a paradox. The documentary features so many actual kendo sequences that it would not take an expert to realize that the kendo performed by the masters, and the supposed kendo being choreographed by the actors, bears strikingly little resemblance to each other. Indeed, the fencing styles used in the various Star Wars films shows heavy inflection from a wide variety of martial arts styles (including European Longsword, Wushu and Filipino arts) as well as different schools of stage combat choreography and a generous dose of special effects wizardry.
Earlier discussions of the lightsabers by the film’s creators did not share this same emphasis on the appropriation of kendo, or any other Asian martial art. Even a few years earlier they tended to treat the creation of lightsabers as mostly a special effects challenge. Yet clearly a demand to identify and explore the “reality” behind the lightsaber has been identified.
Perhaps the most interesting moment of the ESPN documentary occurred when Gillard explained how Kendo had come to be put on the screen. He started by demonstrating a simple overhead, double handed, strike and parry, exactly as you might actually see it in a kendo class.
He then adapted the same set of movements to show what it would look like in the Star Wars universe. This involved manipulating the sword with a single hand, using different angles, and finally spinning it behind the martial artist’s back in a movement that many Chinese students call the “plum blossom.” The same movement was used so many times (often somewhat inexplicably) in the prequels that practitioners of lightsaber combat have started to refer to it as “the Obi-Ani.”
The audience is left with no doubt that the new and improved sequence is vastly more entertaining than the original that (may have) inspired it. It is faster, flashier and requires far greater dexterity to perform. In line with Eco’s argument, it identified what was interesting about traditional swordsmanship and then offered the audience “more.”
This throws Gillard’s subsequent statement into sharp relief. Note his telling use of tense:
“The speed, balance, the violence. Kendo was everything that the Jedi and Sith are.”
Once kendo has been “improved” to the point that it is no longer present, except in a few opening stances or generic movements, what are we watching? This puzzle is precisely what drives students of lightsaber combat to try and locate the mythical Seven Forms of Lightsaber Combat in the films, rather than to read the movements in terms of an existing martial arts style, as this recent documentary would seem to demand.
All of this suggests a growing appetite for “authenticity” and a deeper engagement between Star Wars and the martial arts. Casual fans want to know more about the martial arts that went into the making of these films, both as storytelling elements and on a technical level. At the same time students of lightsaber combat are demanding a greater degree of in-universe coherence in the various fencing sequences featured on film and in other supporting media (videogames, cartoons, novels, comic books).
In this essay we have traveled far down the rabbit hole of hyper-reality. One is now forced to wonder what direction these searches for “authenticity” will take us next. It seems possible that the very success of the lightsaber duel has created a demand for something new. The next film to be released, Rogue One, will revolve around a bloody ground battle fought by normal, non-Force sensitiveness, beings.
It seems unlikely that it will feature a lightsaber duel of any kind. But we can be sure that the Asian martial arts will be present. Not only will Donnie Yen appear in this film, but a scene from the recently released teaser trailer shows him putting down multiple Storm Troopers while armed only with a wooden staff.
In this new search for authenticity we may find the Star Wars franchise taking a step away from its own highly successful brand of hyper-real martial arts, in an effort to recapture some of the original excellence and energy that launched this enterprise close to 40 years ago. It seems that the franchise may yet be willing to accept its identity as a quintessential martial arts story.
If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to see: Through a Lens Darkly (20): Ip Man Confronts the “Indian” Police Officer